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Memory sticks used to program Philly’s voting machines were stolen from elections warehouse

Philadelphia Inquirer logo Philadelphia Inquirer 9/30/2020 By Jeremy Roebuck, Jonathan Lai, The Philadelphia Inquirer
graphical user interface: Philadelphia’s touchscreen ExpressVote XL voting machines. © MIGUEL MARTINEZ/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Philadelphia’s touchscreen ExpressVote XL voting machines.

A laptop and several memory sticks used to program Philadelphia’s voting machines were stolen from a city warehouse in East Falls, city officials confirmed Wednesday, setting off a scramble among elections officials to investigate the theft and ensure the machines could not be compromised before Election Day.

The equipment appeared to be taken this week, sources said. Officials immediately began checking to make sure none of the voting machines had been compromised while also working to contain the fallout for fear of how President Donald Trump and his allies might use the news to cast doubt on the integrity of the city’s elections.

They said the theft would not disrupt the election.

“Since being informed of the incident, I have immediately committed to making necessary police resources available to investigate this incident and find the perpetrators. I have also committed to the City Commissioners additional resources to provide enhanced security at the warehouse going forward,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “This matter should not deter Philadelphians from voting, nor from having confidence in the security of this election.”

Still, when contacted by The Inquirer, the commissioners and the Mayor’s Office initially refused to confirm the theft or that they had opened an investigation. They only did so after The Inquirer informed them that it would be reporting the theft based on sources who had been briefed on the matter but were not authorized to publicly discuss it.

Trump, who trails former vice president Joe Biden in Pennsylvania polls, has sought to cast doubt on the election. That’s alarmed experts and voting rights advocates, who say the president is undermining public confidence in the electoral system and inappropriately politicizing the democratic process.

Many details surrounding the incident remained unclear Wednesday afternoon including exactly how the equipment was taken, whether there are any suspects, and details on how the missing technology might be used. Officials said there are multiple levels of security to prevent the equipment from being used maliciously, and a police investigation is ongoing

The equipment is believed to have been taken some time this week, though the exact date is not clear, according to two sources briefed on the matter who were not authorized to publicly discuss it. No other material appeared to have been taken, the sources said.

The laptop belonged to an on-site employee for Election Systems & Software, the Omaha, Neb.-based company that supplies the machines. An ES&S spokesperson said the laptop is not used to set up the machines. The account on the laptop has been disabled to prevent it from being used, said Nick Custodio, deputy commissioner under Lisa Deeley, chair of the commissioners. He said the computer “did not have any of our election material on it.”

A potentially greater concern are the stolen USB memory sticks that are used to set the machines in advance of an election, including setting the design of the ballots.

Philadelphia has 3,750 of the ExpressVote XL touchscreen voting machines, and elections staff have begun programming them to prepare for Nov. 3. The flash drives are inserted into the top of the machines and some of them — it’s unclear which, specifically, were taken — are also used to record the electronic vote records used for unofficial results reporting on election night.

Once a machine has been set up, it’s closed with a numbered seal. That means that any voting machines that are opened after being programmed should be obviously identifiable because they will have broken seals. The commissioners have begun checking all the sealed machines, Custodio said, to ensure they have not been opened.

The incident comes as Trump has made Philadelphia the target of false claims and conspiracy theories around the election and as he has sought to politicize the voting process in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

Voting via mail ballots has begun in Philadelphia, including at satellite elections offices opened Tuesday, but the voting machines are used only at polling places on Election Day. And the campaign does not yet have poll watchers certified in the city. Still, Trump said falsely on Twitter and in the debate Tuesday that his campaign’s poll watchers had been blocked from observing early voting, accused the city of corruption, and encouraged his supporters to monitor in-person voting.

A lawyer for the campaign sent a letter to the commissioners late Tuesday threatening legal action if they are not allowed to observe the elections offices.

‘Bad things happen in Philadelphia,’ Trump says at debate, renewing false claim about poll watchers

Custodio urged anyone with information to contact the Philadelphia Police at 215-686-TIPS, while urging calm.

“We are confident,” he said, “that this incident will not in any way compromise the integrity of the election.”

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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